by Cynthia Miller Coffel
All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor is still, five decades after its publication, one of the best-known books about American Jewish children. Published in 1951 and describing the lives of five sisters growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early years of the twentieth century, the books—with their descriptions of noisy streets, religious ritual, tasty food, friendly neighbors, and warm, loving home life—made middle class girls all over suburbia wish they had grown up poor in the tenements of New York City. Girls who read the books don’t forget the sisters’ escapades: Charlotte and Gertie sneaking “chocolate babies” and crackers into bed and covering their sheets with crumbs; Henny dying the white dress she “borrowed” from Ella with tea, to cover a stain; Sarah stubbornly refusing to eat her soup. Publisher Lizzie Skurnick, founding editor of Skurnick Books, who in 2014 reissued the four sequels to All-of-a-Kind Family, called the series “completely singular. They’re the first series about a Jewish family ever, one that’s not only about the family, but about Jewish culture, New York, the turn of the century, vaudeville, polio, the rise of technology.” Skurnick has called All-of-a-Kind-Family the Jewish Little House on the Prairie.
Although the series is considered ground-breaking because of its focus on the lives of Eastern European Jews, little has been written about the books’ author—the dancer, actress, and writer Sydney Taylor. Fortunately, a biography, tentatively called From Sarah to Sydney: The Woman Behind All-of-a-Kind Family, by Professor June Cummins with Alexandra Dunietz, is now in the works, and set to be brought out from Yale University Press in the next few years. Much of the information in this article is culled from work recently published by Cummins.
Though readers may not know much about Taylor, the story of the writing of the first All-of-a-Kind Family book is a familiar one. Many of the best children’s books begin as bedtime stories. One evening, Taylor has written, her daughter asked why all the children in the books she read were Christians. Taylor also saw that her daughter, an only child, was sometimes lonely.
When she was a little girl she would say: Mother, I hate going to bed. It’s so lonesome. Won’t you stay awhile?
I would look around the room with its solitary bed, and my mind would go back to my own childhood. Once again I would be living in the flat on New York’s Lower East Side where five little girls shared one bedroom—and never minded bedtime. Snuggled in our beds we would talk and giggle and plan tomorrow’s fun and mischief.
Later, Taylor wrote, she found that her daughter liked the stories she told at bedtime so much that she decided to write them down “especially for her . . . Satisfied I promptly put the manuscript away and the years rolled over it.”
But one summer, the story goes, when Taylor was away, her husband unearthed the manuscript. He had seen the announcement of a contest organized by the publishing company Wilcox & Follet. He sent his wife’s manuscript in. In Sydney Taylor’s words:
No one was more surprised than I when I received a letter from Mrs. Meeks, the Children’s Book Editor of Wilcox & Follett, telling me she wanted to publish All-of-a-Kind Family. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I told my husband and the whole story came out. Then Mr. Follett telephoned me to say that All-of-a-Kind Family had won the Follett [Award].
This Cinderella story of publishing, which represents the publication of the first book of the series as casual, almost accidental, has been questioned by relatives of Taylor’s, who say that the writer worked on the first novel for at least a couple of years, and sent it around to publishers, in hopes that it would be accepted. The more frequently-told story suggests that either Taylor or her publishers, in that decade of conformity after the Second World War and before the feminism of the 1960s, did not want to represent the author as a person with literary ambitions.
In any case, what is clear is that, at the late age of 46, after successful careers as an actress and dancer, Sydney Taylor began another, important, long and fruitful career, as a writer of fiction for children.
Born Sarah Brenner on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1904, Sydney Taylor was the American daughter of immigrant Jews. The stories in the All-of-a-Kind Family series are smoothed-over, prettied-up versions of the stories she lived with her sisters, whose names, like those of the girls in the series, really were Ella, Henrietta, Charlotte, and Gertrude.
The Sarah of All-of-a-Kind Family is the sister most readers know best, the one whose eyes we most often see through. She is the middle child, the one who tells the library lady she has lost her library book; who learns how to dust by searching the parlor for hidden buttons; who buys hot chickpeas from a Yiddish-speaking peddler; who falls ill with scarlet fever just before Passover, and later invites the library lady to come see the family Succah. This middle child is a representation of Sydney Taylor herself. In a 2014 talk about Taylor at New York City’s Tenement Museum, Professor Cummins explained that, in the diaries she began writing when she was 14, Sarah Brenner began calling herself Sydney. Professor Cummins sees this name change, this taking on of a new identity, as emblematic of life-long conflicts Taylor experienced. Disliking the way gender roles are assigned in our culture, Cummins suggests, Taylor took on a male name; uncomfortable about being Jewish in a mostly-Protestant country, Cummins suggests, Taylor took on a recognizably Anglo-Saxon name. Throughout her life as a writer, Taylor received fan letters that addressed her as “Mr.”
Taylor’s parents, Celia Marowitz and Morris Brenner, the Mama and Papa of the series, immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1900, along with more than 2 million other Jews who escaped religious persecution and entered the United States between 1880 and 1920. Celia, born in Russia, had lived a middle-class life in the city of Bremen, but Morris was poor, from a town in Poland famous for making brushes out of pigskin and bristle. After the couple married and moved to the United States, and as Morris struggled to find work, the couple experienced a poverty deeper and more painful than Taylor suggests in the children’s books. Cummins says that this period—when Morris began work as a junk seller, when illness ran rampant through cramped tenements, and when the family lived in a four-room apartment—was particularly difficult for Taylor’s mother, because she was used to a middle-class life. (Signs of her more refined tastes can be seen in Taylor’s description of the front room Sarah dusts, with its piano and china knicknacks.)
Soon the family was no longer an “all-of-a-kind” family: Celia Brenner had three boys, one of whom died in infancy. The real Irving’s counterpart enters the world in the last chapter of the first book of the series, as the long-hoped for boy, Charlie. In Ella of All-of-a-Kind-Family, the last book of the series, Mama tells Ella she is pregnant with a baby, whom Professor Cummins identifies as Taylor’s youngest brother, Jerry. Soon the ever-larger family’s finances became stabilized and—just like their counterparts in More All-of-a-Kind Family—they moved into a duplex, in the Bronx, with seven rooms.
Taylor and her siblings were raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, experiencing, as the family does in the books, the many rituals of an observant Jewish life, their time punctuated by familiar expressions of reverence, history, and culture. Still, as they grew older “Syd Brenner” (as she called herself) assimilated into the Protestant world. Throughout her two years of high school and after, Taylor went to parties on Friday nights, worked on Saturdays, ate in non-kosher restaurants, and forgot some of the Jewish holidays. She worked for a while in an office, and during that time, because she was blonde and her co-workers did not realize that she was Jewish, experienced anti-Semitism, often in the form of cruel jokes.
Still, she lived in a mostly Jewish world. After leaving high school in 1920, she took classes in drama and began attending meetings of the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL). This was a heavily Jewish organization, the youth affiliate of the Socialist party. The group, which held social get-togethers as well as organizational meetings, believed strongly in democracy, but also worked for a classless society. They argued for the elimination of ethnic and religious discrimination.
At a YPSL meeting Syd Brenner met Ralph Taylor, and in 1925 they married. That same year Taylor began working as an actress with the Lenox Hill Players. In the last of the All of Kind Family series, the oldest sister Ella joins a vaudeville act, performs on stage, and experiences the difficulties and pleasures of that hard work. Much of this last novel of the series is drawn from Taylor’s experiences with the Lenox Hill Players. In the book Taylor expresses some of the conflict she felt between this not-completely-satisfying career and her desire for a more conventional life with Ralph Taylor.
Still, even after she left the world of acting, Syd Taylor worked. From 1930 till 1935 she performed as a professional dancer in Martha Graham’s first dance troupe. Many of the women with whom she performed went on to become famous in the dance world: choreographer Anna Sokolow later staged works for the New York City Opera, the Jullliard School, and, at Jerome Robbins’ urging, for the Inbal Dancers in Israel. Sophie Maslow, who danced alongside Taylor, later created the company New Dance Group, dedicated to using dance to making social and political statements. Like Taylor, many of these dancers were the children of poor Russian Jewish immigrant families.
In 1935, after giving birth to her only child, Jo, Taylor decided to stay home. When Jo was seven, Taylor began working as a dance and drama teacher at the Cejwin (Central Jewish Institute) Camp in Port Jervis, New York, where she was known as Aunt Syd. Her sisters worked there, too: Ella as costume designer, Henny as dining room supervisor. Book lovers like their fictional counterparts, Syd, Ella, Henny, Charlotte, and Gertrude also established the Camp Cejwin library, which some claim is the first camp library ever created.By this time Ralph (who, as Uncle Ralph, also helped out at Camp Cejwin) had become president of Cawell-Massey Company, a firm of chemists and perfumers, and the Taylors’ political views had softened. Still, Professor Cummins says, a photograph of Eugene Debs hung on the wall of their home.
Time rolled along, but Taylor had not completely forgotten the answer she always gave when people asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Despite her interest in the stage, in politics, and in dance, she had always responded that she wanted to become a writer.
In Lower East Side Memories, her history of what she calls “an American Jewish sacred place,” Dr. Hasia Diner describes how influential All-of-a-Kind Family was in presenting a romanticized version of the neighborhood to the rest of the world. She explains how, in Milwaukee and San Antonio and Chicago, little Jewish girls, who had never seen representations of their ethnicity in books before, read All-of-a-Kind Family and felt that they were coming home. She suggests that the setting of the book was particularly powerful because so much of European Jewish life had recently been lost in the war. Also, as second-generation immigrants, Taylor’s generation had moved far away from the busy area, out of the city, to places of “lawns and wide-open spaces.” Taylor reminded her peers of a place like the places where they grew up, where the streets were mean but the people were sweet. In her descriptions of the outdoor marketplace in the heart of the city, Taylor “took readers on a sensory journey to a realm of distinctive sounds, smells, tastes, and sights.” On Taylor’s Lower East Side, Diner tells us, no one needed to be embarrassed of their Jewishness, and American patriotism existed side by side with Jewish life.
It was partly the editing of the book that made that combination of Jewishness and Americanness clear. Cummins describes how the children’s books editor Esther Meeks “politely but firmly insisted on several significant changes” to the manuscript Ralph Taylor had sent in to the contest. Meeks encouraged Taylor to emphasize the relationship between Charlie and Kathy, two of the few Christian characters in the first book. Meeks strongly suggested that Taylor add a chapter in which the family celebrates the Fourth of July, writing, “I do think it important, too, particularly today, that this family show some signs of being American as well as Jewish.” Cummins also points out that Taylor “never once” mentions that Mama and Papa were born outside of the United States. Though other characters have Yiddish accents, Sydney Taylor’s Mama and Papa do not.
The book that came of these edits, out of her daughter’s questions, out of her yearning memory of the place and time of her childhood, was the best that Sydney Taylor ever wrote. She followed it with the four sequels and five other children’s books, the last two published after her death in 1978 at age 73. After her death, her husband Ralph established the Sydney Taylor Book Award. It is presented every year to the author of an outstanding book for children and teens, that authentically portrays the Jewish experience.
In 1981, Sydney Taylor’s sisters came together at Camp Cejwin to watch campers perform a play version of All-of-a-Kind Family. The elderly sisters—Ella, Henny, Charlotte and Gertie—sat in the front row together and watched children perform a story of their lives.
Cynthia Miller Coffel is the author of Thinking Themselves Free: Research on the Literacy of Teen Mothersand co-author ofA Critical Handbook of Children’s Literature. Her PhD, from the University of Iowa, is in literacy education. Her most recent publication, “Sealed Forever: On Becoming a Teacher,” appeared in the InFact Books Anthology, What I Didn’t Know: True Stories of Becoming a Teacher.
homepage photo credit: Lewis Hine via NYPL